American Harmony (U.S., 2009) The 2006 International Quartet barbershop singing competition is the subject of this documentary. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31.
Araya (Venezuela, 1959) This Venezuelan documentary, unreleased in the U.S. for 50 years, plays like a meditation on the history of an ancient land populated by poor salt miners and fishermen. There are many gorgeous black-and-white images here: Director Margot Benacerraf shoots in close-up and from the ground up. Occasionally, she peers at the workers from above, viewing them as an army of ants, methodically and ritualistically delivering their bounty to the mountains of "white gold." There are also some soothing sounds, as miners silently push their boats out to the gently waving sea. But the over-poetic narration ("Salt and sweat, sweat and salt, until the end of time") is often intrusive; Araya says plenty without the nonstop voice-over (does the narrator really need to tell us a dozen times that everything the villagers eat comes from the sea?). You'll learn a few things — conquistadors paid their soldiers in salt! — even if we never quite figure out where the salt comes from before the miners pull it from the sea and where it goes after they pile it up on the shore. Mostly, though, you'll be awestruck by the elegant, tranquil images of a land and people that haven't changed much since time began. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. *** (Michael Gallucci)
The Box (U.S., 2009) A married couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) is given a box with a large red button by a mysterious disfigured man (Frank Langella). Langella tells them that if they press the button, they will be given a million dollars. At the same time, someone "they don't know" will die as a result. Set in 1976, The Box takes great pains to accurately reflect the era and its films, right down to its excellent retro orchestral score. The film is based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," a simple and elegant dark fantasy tale whose twist ending packs a wicked punch of social commentary. It's a great story, but there's not really enough there for a feature film. So, for better or worse, writer-director Richard Kelly has expanded on and changed the source material considerably. Kelly's adaptation is too long and piles on so much weirdness that it threatens to overwhelm the story at times. His ending also lacks the bite of Matheson's original. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and uncompromising film that will no doubt attract the same sort of cult following as Kelly's Donnie Darko. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:50 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. *** (Robert Ignizio)
Edge of Darkness Reviewed at clevescene.com.
Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution (France, 2008) Concerns about the quality of the food we eat and the implications it might have on our health aren't just taking centerstage in the States. In France, one of the world's largest consumers of pesticides, organic farming has become a topic of heated debate. We see one such debate at a UNESCO conference in the opening scenes of this documentary. Thankfully, the film isn't all about numbers (though there's plenty of that) and farming techniques ("How do I keep mildew from growing on my vines?" asks one vineyard owner). Director Jean-Paul Jaud spends most of his time in a rural French village where the mayor has declared that all students' lunches must be organic. Alternating between scenes of legislative battles and images of children planting their own vegetables gives the film a nice balance and suggests that putting ideas about healthy lifestyles into practice really shouldn't be so difficult. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3. *** (Jeff Niesel)
The New World (U.S., 2005) Terrence Malick's lyrical reverie about the 1607 founding of the Jamestown colony is a tactile portrayal of tragic native-vs.-European first-contact, as well as a fresh take on the Pocahontas legend, with the full scoop on her on-off romantic relationship with John Smith (Colin Farrell), symbolic of the fertile North American landmass and its/her deflowering by European profiteers. Drawbacks are a ponderous pace (you feel every minute of the two-and-a-half hours) and Malick's politically correct flower-child mindset of the "naturals" (Indians) as unspoiled, unselfish and non-denominationally spiritual, while Anglos are shifty, diseased, Bible-demented and encased in clunky conquistador armor. Characters seem more iconic than real, and they often mutter their haiku-like dialogue into the ground (and what's up with Farrell not buttoning his shirt when he's in the frozen North? Dude must've been auditioning for Twilight). Still, you get a sense of wonder at pre-Colonial America, back when white males were not at the top of the food chain and had only a tenuous foothold on the untamed soil. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, and 9:25 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29. *** (Charles Cassady Jr.)
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (U.S., 2008) The influential architectural photographer is the subject of this documentary. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 5:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27.
When in Rome Reviewed at clevescene.com.
Avatar It's been a dozen years since king of the world James Cameron won a boatload of Oscars for Titanic. He apparently spent the downtime thinking about how to revolutionize movies with Avatar, his bloated and exhausting sci-fi epic about a tribe of tall, tailed and blue-hued creatures called Na'vi. It's also one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The film is set in 2154 on the forest planet of Pandora, where wheelchair-bound marine Jake Scully (Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington) is recruited for an ongoing project that fuses human and Na'vi DNA, resulting in "avatars" that look like Na'vi but retain human thoughts. It's all very scientific, confusing and geeky. With a new body capable of sprinting as fast as any animal on Earth, Jake's mission is to infiltrate the Na'vi so the military can mine the precious minerals their homes are built on (again, it's all very scientific, confusing and geeky). It doesn't take long for Jake to fall for one of the Na'vi (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek's Uhura) and rethink his assignment. Avatar is pure sci-fi hokum with one-dimensional characters, heavy-handed narration and an unsurprising love story. But you've never seen a movie like this before. *** (Gallucci)
The Book of Eli Written by Gary Whitta and directed by the Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli does a good job of walking the middle ground between the pulpy entertainment of The Road Warrior and the more serious-minded vision of the end of the world seen in The Road. Its story revolves around Eli (Denzel Washington), who walks through a post-apocalyptic United States carrying with him the last surviving copy of the Bible. He believes he has been charged by God to deliver the book to a place where it will be safe, though he doesn't know where that might be other than to the west. Looking for supplies, Eli stops in a small town of survivors that's governed by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has been looking for a copy of the Bible because of its power in social control. The two predictably come into conflict. Washington and Oldman are excellent. So is Mila Kunis as the film's female lead, proving she's just as adept at drama as she is at comedy. *** 1/2 (Ignizio)
Extraordinary Measures If you're casting the role of a genius scientist, Harrison Ford probably isn't the first name that comes to mind. As it happens, Ford's distant demeanor is rather well suited to the prickly Dr. Robert Stonehill, a research scientist who has conducted extensive studies on Pompe, a rare genetic disorder. Stonehill works all night in his laboratory, shrinks from most human contact and blares the Grateful Dead and the James Gang while working. Stonehill's research captures the attention of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a drug-company executive who, with his wife Aileen (Keri Russell), is raising three children, two of whom — Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Velazquez) — have Pompe, whose sufferers usually die in early childhood. Although it sounds like another Lorenzo's Oil, this is in large part a business story, dramatically illustrating how corporate interests intersect with human suffering in the quest to manufacture "orphan drugs." This is a sentimental movie that might be more at home on television, but it's a heartfelt production, handled with taste and elevated by an A-list cast, fluid direction by Tom Vaughan and a moving musical score by Andrea Guerra.*** (Pamela Zoslov)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus The sensation of watching fabulist extraordinaire Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is akin to devouring an entire pound bag of M&Ms in one sitting. While you're absorbed in their chocolatey goodness, you can't stop eating them. But when the bag is finally empty, all you're left with is a massive belly ache. Or, in the case of Doctor Parnassus, a doozy of an Excedrin headache. Better known as the late Heath Ledger's final film (he died in the middle of production, necessitating a quick rewrite by Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown), Doctor Parnassus is a smorgasbord for the senses. The cinematography, art direction and costumes are to die for. Yet the movie never engages you on an emotional level. It's all mind-numbing spectacle with precious little substance to back up Gilliam's wacky flights of fantasy. Unfortunately, Gilliam hasn't given anyone an actual "part" to play. They're mostly just interchangeable chess pieces to be moved about at whim on Gilliam's Candyland-style set. ** 1/2 (Milan Paurich)
Leap Year Directed by the estimable Anand Tucker (Shopgirl, Hilary and Jackie) in a somewhat lighter mode than usual, the film owes a huge debt of gratitude to its pixie-ish leading lady, two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams. As Anna, a Boston real-estate sharpie who travels to Ireland just so she can propose to her yuppie doctor boyfriend (Adam Scott) on February 29th, the adorable Adams makes a fairly pedestrian script by husband-and-wife writing team Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (Made of Honor, Can't Hardly Wait) seem far brighter, smarter and wittier than it really is. Very little of what transpires in this featherweight romantic comedy is remotely surprising or fresh, yet Adams keeps you happily glued to your seat from start to finish. Helping matters considerably is Tucker's deft and blessedly restrained hand while tackling even the hoariest rom-com conventions (the meet-cute scene, the tacky motel-room It Happened One Night moment, etc.). And if Matthew Goode (playing Adams' hate-him-at-first-sight Irishman suitor-to-be) lacks the megawatt charisma and virile studliness that, say, Colin Farrell might have brought to the role, he's still immensely winning. *** (Paurich)
The Lovely Bones If you adored Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, don't expect much from Peter Jackson's much-delayed screen version. Rachel Weisz and Saoirse Ronan are all perfectly OK for Abigail and Susie Salmon, but Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Sopranos alumnus Michael Imperioli all seem dead wrong for the roles of father Jack Salmon, murderer George Harvey and detective Len Fenerman. As it turns out, Jackson's overuse of special effects to recreate Sebold's vision of the afterlife and some peculiar casting decisions are the least of the film's problems. The major reason The Lovely Bones leaves an acrid taste is that neither Jackson nor co-adapters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens seems to have understood the appeal of Sebold's bestseller or why it was so emotionally devastating for its legion of fans. The heart-wrenching tale of a 14-year-old girl brutally raped and murdered by an odd-duck neighbor in her central Pennsylvania neighborhood in 1973 — and her post-death observance of how her surviving family members grieve (terribly), and learn to rebound and move on — was primal, bawl-your-eyes-out stuff. Jackson's decision to vulgarize Sebold's story by turning it into a hokey serial-killer thriller basically shits on everything that made it special. ** (Paurich)
Nine This musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2 is set in 1965 Rome, where "maestro" Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis with an Italian accent) is struggling to get his latest movie started. The press is hounding him, his producer is itching to begin filming and his star (Nicole Kidman) won't show up until she sees a script, which Guido hasn't written yet. Coming off a string of flops, he's sick, tired and stressed-out. So he anonymously checks in to a secluded hotel for rest. But soon the press, the paparazzi, his producer, his wife (Marion Cotillard, so good as Johnny Depp's girlfriend in Public Enemies) and his mother (Sophia Loren) show up. So do the various women who've paraded through his life. The movie sizzles during the stylish set pieces (mostly fantasy sequences) featuring half-dressed, gyrating women. The stars throw themselves into the material. Kidman, Penelope Cruz (as a mistress), Kate Hudson (a reporter) and Judi Dench (Guido's long-suffering costume designer) don't have great pipes, but their energy during the musical numbers powers the film. *** (Gallucci)
Sherlock Holmes Guy Ritchie directs a Holmes that casts Robert Downey Jr. as the cerebral Victorian sleuth, re-imagined as a surly, bare-knuckle-brawling bounder. Setting aside the heresy against the sacred Holmes canon, casting Downey was this misbegotten movie's first mistake. The next error was rendering insignificant Holmes' friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who spends most of his screen time complaining about Holmes' violin playing, pistol shooting and experimenting on Watson's bulldog (the movie's most charming actor). The film serves up a mixed stew of Holmes bits, featuring the evil Dr. Moriarty and Holmes' female nemesis, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, dreadful). Overlong and a little unappetizing, this Holmes is unlikely to endear itself either to Holmesians or action-movie fans. Nevertheless, Ritchie is busily at work on a sequel. ** 1/2 (Zoslov)
The Spy Next Door If you're a longtime Jackie Chan fan hoping for another Police Story or even a Rush Hour, you can probably skip The Spy Next Door. The plot is standard-issue, the performances are flat and Brian Levant's direction can best be described as competent. The movie basically skates by on Chan's likability, martial-arts skill and knack for comedy. The film centers on Bob Ho (Chan), a Chinese secret agent on loan to the CIA to help apprehend Russian criminal Poldark (Magnus Scheving). Having completed his mission, Bob wants to retire from the spy game and settle down with his neighbor, hot single mom Gillian (Amber Valletta). Unfortunately, Bob's cover as a boring pen salesman has worked a little too well, and Gillian's three kids all think he's a loser. Further complicating matters, Poldark escapes from captivity and sends his goons after Bob to retrieve a computer file containing information vital to his nefarious plans. Of course, the kids wind up getting entangled in this mess, and the expected fight scenes and stunts ensue. Still, there are a few laughs, and even the tame fight scenes are reasonably entertaining. ** 1/2 (Ignizio)
The Tooth Fairy Derek (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a brute of a minor-league hockey player who hasn't scored a goal in nine years and has been relegated to an enforcer role, gets nicknamed "The Tooth Fairy" because he hits players so hard, he's been known to knock a tooth or two out. Off the ice, he's a nice guy, but when he tells his girlfriend Carly (Ashley Judd) that her kid Tess (Destiny Whitlock) shouldn't believe in things she can't see, he wakes up one morning to find the "Department of the Dissemination of Belief" has issued him a citation ordering him to report to the chief fairy (Julie Andrews). He grows a set of wings and must work as a real tooth fairy and fly around the city, snatching teeth out from under the pillows of youngsters. Johnson tries his best to relish the role but the stiff dialogue and the film's obvious message have put the Rock in a hard place. While it's amusing to see the burly guy dressed in a fairy outfit, you would think his agent could find him better roles than this. The same can't be said for Billy Crystal, who is dry in an uncredited cameo as a mad scientist that clues Derek into tooth-fairy secrets. * (Niesel)
Up in the Air Intelligently adapted by Ivan Reitman and Sheldon Turner from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, Air stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a freelance "corporate downsizer" who flies around the globe firing pink- slipped employees for their chickenshit employers. Proud of his footloose and fancy-free ways and lack of emotional attachments, Ryan is flying right into the path of an oncoming storm — a crisis of conscience. He just doesn't know it yet. The remarkable supporting cast includes Vera Farmiga as an equally career-obsessed Chicago business executive who's instrumental in derailing Ryan's flight plans (literally and figuratively), and the wonderful Anna Kendrick (Camp, Rocket Science) as Ryan's eager-beaver second-in-command who learns a life lesson or two of her own along the way. As splendidly written and brilliantly directed as Up in the Air is, the movie wouldn't have worked as well with a different leading actor. Clooney delivers a career performance here, one that pegs him as the premier American screen actor of his generation. *** (Paurich)
Youth in Revolt While on a family vacation in Ukiah, California, Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) meets jaded, non-virginal hipster chick Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). The two bond over their mutual boho tastes and disdain of parents. After returning home, Nick devises what he thinks is a foolproof plan to get his mom (Jean Smart) to let him return to Ukiah (and Sheeni). One of the most amusing features is the alter ego Nick adapts in his bid for emancipation. Gallic-accented Francois Dillinger is a real hoot (and a nice stretch for Cera, who seems to be having a ball playing a bad boy), as well as a bad influence on poor Nick. Arson and grand theft auto are just a few of the crimes he gets talked into committing by tres debonair Francois. Adapted by Charlie Bartlett scenarist Gustin Nash from the first three books in C.D. Payne's six-tome series, Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, the film does a nice job of making Nick thoroughly likable, even relatable, throughout. *** (Paurich)